Friday, December 6, 2013

Advent

It's been a strange 24 hours. First of all, I'm able to write this morning because I'm sitting at home due to a two-hour inclement weather delay. An arctic blast has been blustering its way through Central Texas, so, despite the fact that it was 87 degrees earlier in the week, I'm cuddled up on the sofa, waiting for the roads to clear before I can go to work this morning.

As strange as it is to even say the words "freezing rain" in Texas, the events of yesterday were even stranger. Mid-morning, I learned about the death of Ronnie Smith, a former pastor at The Austin Stone, who had moved to Libya with his family over a year ago. When I first heard about it, I barely had any reaction at all. I envy those who can cry easily- who can become appropriately upset about something as tragic and shocking as this seemingly senseless act of violence. But I had no physical reaction at all. I was completely blank-faced and apparently emotionless. But, on the inside, it was a different story.

From the moment I found out, I could not really stop thinking about Ronnie's death. I remembered watching the video that he and his wife made for the Austin Stone when they took a "vision trip" to Libya before they made a permanent move there. You can see clips of the video on the CBS news website, but I'd caution anyone who clicks on the link because there are graphic images that I find upsetting. CBS NEWS-Ronnie Smith I remembered seeing him recite The History of Redemption, a beautiful book about the Gospel that he edited, and the church promoted two Christmases ago. History of Redemption I didn't know him personally, but what I did know is that he understood the risk that he was taking by moving to Libya, and he wanted the church-regular people like me and Andy- to know that he thought it was worth it.

Throughout the day, all I could do was think, and occasionally pause to pray for Ronnie's family. The day went on. American teenagers are who they are. They demand your attention and your energy, even when you want so much to be quiet and introspective. But, even in response to my students, I thought about Ronnie. He had taken a job as a Chemistry teacher at an international school. In the afternoon hours, stories about his death began to reach major news websites. His students were quoted in the articles- comments on how Mr. Smith believed in them, how loved he was. He had stayed in Benghazi to administer their exams before returning to the States for the holidays. This shook me to the core. When you go to a giant, hip church like the Austin Stone, and you see these really quality film presentations like the one made about Ronnie and his wife, it's easy to think that your small, normal life is not really worth much. It's not the intended effect, I'm sure, and maybe I'm one of few people who responds to such dramatic beauty with intimidation instead of inspiration. Watching that video a couple of years ago, I knew that Ronnie and Anita were doing something that Andy and I probably would never do. Sometimes this can defeat me. It was defeating me as I thought about it yesterday afternoon- about the great risk, about their great faith, about the story of it all, and Who it points to and how much He is worth. And, I have to admit that my own life does not demonstrate how much Jesus it worth- does not do justice to His dramatic beauty. But, at the core of it, Ronnie was teaching. Teaching Chemistry. Which is exactly what I do. And though the risk was much greater, and the story more compelling and his reward in Heaven will be greater (as it should be), sounds like God called him to be a teacher. And to love his students as Christ loves. And to show them mercy, and justice and humility. Which is what all Christian teachers should do, at all times, no matter where they are, no matter how they feel.

It was strange to leave Hill Country and go out into the world with its Christmas lights and holiday songs, strange even to be in my own house with our tree and my "Merry Christmas Ya'll" dishes. But when I got home, I went to the tree and took a picture of one of my favorite ornaments- the lion and the lamb. There's a promise in Isaiah 65 that one day the Lord will bring peace to Jerusalem (and all the Earth) and that the "sounds of weeping and of crying will be heard in it no more." The lion and the lamb symbolize this everlasting peace- a peace that I really believe in, and one that seems a little more real and little more necessary when days like yesterday happen. Christians say, from time to time, "Amen, come Lord Jesus," which means that we want this eternal peace to come soon. I confess, my life is often so busy and happy that I don't think about this often. But yesterday I did.


While at first I thought that Ronnie's death was in stark contrast to this season of good cheer, I now don't think it is at all. Because this is the season of advent. Advent means arrival. In BSF, our lesson taught that Jesus's advents (there are two) are like two mountain ranges. When Isaiah wrote about the peace of Jerusalem so many years ago, it looked to some like there was just going to be one arrival, just as when you look at a mountain range from a far distance, it can appear that you are looking at just one mountain. But, the reality is that Jesus's first advent, which is what we're in the midst of celebrating, is only the first mountain. We live in the valley between the first advent and the second. The first advent is the one with Mary, Joseph, the wise men and the shepherds. I love it. I love the songs about it, I love celebrating it and every symbolic meaning derived from it. Usually, I dwell there completely for the month of December. But yesterday, while I looked at the lion and the lamb, I couldn't stop thinking about the second advent. The one that isn't here yet, but is coming. The one where the weeping is going to stop. The one where He is going to reign as King forever. The one that Ronnie is going to see, and so am I.

Amen, come Lord Jesus.



Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Some summer


 Today is sort of my "last day" of summer. Tomorrow I begin some of my official school teacher duties, and next week, the kids come back and it's all systems go until next June. I've had a really great summer- very restful, relaxing and FUN! Some of the highlights were...

2302 Dijon Drive
Mumford & Sons in concert 
Myrtle Beach with my mom 
a quick shopping trip to Brooks Brothers in Garland with Grant 
watching Tour de France with Preston & Robin 
grilling out with Andy 
the first competition of La Copa de Felipe y Gato 
learning to road bike 
singing "Jesus Loves Me" with Sara while the tallest roller coaster in Texas climbed its initial descent 
soccer, soccer and more soccer 
sleeping 
Jesus the King by Tim Keller

I wish that all the good moments could be caught on film, but they can't be. Here are a few. It's been a good time. :)
Waiting for Mumford & Sons at the Circuit of the Americas amphitheater
A couple of days into the summer.. just beginning to look relaxed. 


We've LOVED getting settled into our house this summer! 
I spent most of the month of June in a book- here, And the Mountains Echoed is my focus while Andy puts kabobs on the grill
Gatsby loves having a yard.


On the Fourth of July, Andy smoked his first brisket. Here, he and Gats are getting an early start.



 



Even though we love staying at home, it was really nice to get to go up to the Howard family ranch for a weekend getaway. We had a great hike, grilled some delicious steaks, gazed at the stars and just slowed down, in general. 


Daisy enjoying the view from the porch. 

The ranch using my "watercolor" feature on my camera. 

There's been a lot of soccer this summer. I've been playing women's league, and we've both been playing co-ed, and we both got pretty into the Gold Cup. When we found out that the USA was going to play Honduras for the semifinal in Dallas, we snagged tickets. The game wasn't particularly exciting, but it was amazing just to be there and see the players live. Chanting USA! USA! in person was such an exciting experience! 





Delicious and not a tiny bit good for you! 


Mexico and Panama take the field for what turned out to be a really exciting game! 

When I was home this summer, my mom gave me this piece of stained glass that used to be one of the windows in the country church where I used to attend family reunions when I was growing up. It's nice to have a little piece of Antioch Methodist Church catching the light every morning. 


What would summer be without bugs! I caught this one molting one morning. 

I have had a LOT of fun this summer, but my favorite thing is to just be still and hang out in the backyard with this guy. :) 















Friday, July 12, 2013

Snapshots of Who I Am- Unconditionally loved

Every Christmas, my mom gives me a Mary Engelbreit desk calendar. Each day, I look forward to pulling off the sheet from the day before, and seeing cute drawings of round-faced children in colorful garb grinning back at me. The drawings accompany a memorable quote- something meant to infuse the day with humor or good cheer. Today's sheet doesn't have a cherubic looking child. Instead, there's a shaggy charcoal-colored terrier smiling at me. His head is slightly tilted, ears perked up attentively, pink tongue just barely peaking out of his furry mouth. His red collar has a heart-shaped tag, and he sits next to a red and white polka-dotted ball. Above his friendly face, I read, "A dog is the only thing on earth that loves you more than he loves himself. - JOSH BILLINGS"

My dog Gatsby is lying beside me on the sofa while I write- he's polka-dotted, but his ball is not.  When it comes to balls, Gatsby has no shortage of variety- red, blue, a green one with a bell inside it, one that looks like a soccer ball, a pink one that was supposed to be for Daisy, our other Cocker Spaniel, but that Gatsby has, of course, claimed as his own. When he turned ten last year, Andy & I bought him ten balls from Pet Smart. He's eleven now, and he's lost a few of his birthday presents, but we keep a pretty steady supply of balls for our boy.

If you've ever met Gatsby, you don't need me to describe him to you. For you, the phrase "Great Gatsby" already has double meaning- F. Scott's and then the Cocker Spaniel version. But if you haven't  had the chance to meet Gatsby, I'll do my best to introduce him to you.

When I was in college, I went through a period of blatant spiritual rebellion. Actually, I don't know if "rebellion" is the right word. Doesn't rebellion imply that you once belonged to something and have chosen, defiantly, to leave it? If so, then that's not the right word, because it would mean that I'd once truly followed the Lord with my heart, that I had loved Him, had accepted His ways, and then left Him. That's not true. My heart hadn't ever been devoted to Him, and I'd only followed his ways out of fear. I had fooled a lot of people, even myself, but in truth, I'd been devoted to myself all along. In college, I just began to let my true devotion show, and I spent my Freshman year following the ways that seemed best to me at the time. One of the ways that my parents dealt with my behavior was by requiring that I transfer colleges at the end of my Freshman year. I might have been out of their house, but they were still paying the bills, and they had more authority than I wanted them to have at the time. Their rationale was that I had to have some consequences to my actions that went against their Bible-based standards, and a change of environment was going to be one of them. I was so angry with them, with God and with life that summer before my Sophomore year of college. It was the closest to hatred that I'd ever come, and yet, I knew, on some level, that I was a huge mess inside and someone had to do something or my heart, much less the rest of my life, was never going to get cleaned up.

On the day that my mother took me up to the college that I would be transferring to, I alternated between tears of self-pity and the silent treatment. My mom, God bless her, suffered through my antics while we visited the Registrar's office and then an apartment complex, where I would live by myself in a one-bedroom in the fall. I was sullen, thinking the whole time of myself and what I would be losing- how I would miss the friends that I'd made my Freshman year at the college I was being forced to leave, convincing myself that my quality of life would be almost unbearable come August. I was such a jerk back then. Now that I'm a teacher, and I deal with sullen, indulged, self-obsessed teenagers, I'm convinced that what my mother did next was nothing but a demonstration of God's grace and her love for me. As we left the city to head back toward home, she picked up a newspaper (This was before she had her iPhone) and began to look for an advertisement for puppies. We'd secured the apartment, now, we were going to find me a roommate.

She found a breeder in a small town about an hour and a half away. She made a call and let them know we were coming. When we got there, the breeder showed us a litter of Cocker Spaniel puppies- some were solid black, or black with chocolate markings. They were really tiny, not very old at all. Then, she let out a litter of polka-dotted puppies- what's known as "Parti Mix" to dog enthusiasts- into a little outdoor playpen type of thing. They ran, if you could call it running- it was more like wobbling quickly- around the pen, tackling one another, making impossibly adorable noises. I couldn't take my eyes off them.

For months, ever since I was told that I'd have to transfer schools, I'd tried to seal up my heart, turn it into stone- a monument to my self-justified anger toward my parents and their stoic, demanding God. But when I first knelt down and picked up a rough-and-tumble puppy with a white streak that ran down the middle of his head, separating two soft, curly black ears, I knew it wouldn't last. I gave him back to the breeder so she could give him an injection and a bath. She handed him back to me. He was dazzlingly white with perfectly-placed black speckles on his nose and his back and his feet.

On the car ride home, my new puppy curled up in my lap and fell asleep. I watched his rhythmic breathing and was amazed that something so tiny could trust me so quickly, and so completely. I named him "Gatsby" because of a quote from F. Scott Fitzgerald's book that fit my life at the time. I didn't know it then, but I was naming my best friend. By the time we got home, my heart was softer than it had been in months.

In college, Gatsby was my saving grace. I struggled spiritually for a while longer, before surrendering whole-heartedly to Christ in the spring of my Sophomore year. Still, the years that followed weren't exactly easy. I struggled to follow Christ, to make sense of religion- something that I'm still struggling with. I had a break-then-mend-then-break-again relationship that lasted too many years, and I struggled with depression, as well. I never did make very many friends at the college I transferred to. I studied a lot. I watched too much TV. I gained weight. I wished that I looked like, could be like, someone else. In all of this, Gatsby was my friend. On days that I would have gladly stayed in the bed, not having the energy or desire to do much else, I would look at his playful face- always hopeful to go out for a walk or to play ball- and I'd get up anyway. I took him everywhere with me. Some days, when the weather was nice, I'd let him ride to campus with me. I'd park in a big gravel lot, and roll the windows down in my Jeep, and he'd wait in the car for me until I was done with classes. Looking back, it kind of amazes me that I did that. Nowadays, I'd be afraid that he would be stolen or would get too hot (even though I never did take him on hot days). But then, I always wanted him to be with me. There was a girl in one of my Chemistry classes who brought her Basset Hound to class with her. My prof was an older gentleman, and I don't think he knew the dog was even there, he was a little hard of hearing, and too excited about explaining the difference between cis and trans configurations to pay attention to the back row, where she sat with her hound. I seriously contemplated bringing Gats to Chemistry with me, but I was confused enough in that class, and knew that Gatsby would never be able to sit still like that lethargic Basset Hound could. But I would have if I'd thought that we could get away with it.

Gats and I have always had lots of adventures. We both love hiking and he loves to swim. We've gone to National and State parks together. We've been swimming in the Atlantic and the Pacific. We've lived in a lot of different places, and made different friends. In all of this, God has gone out of His way to protect Gatsby. In eleven years, he has fallen down a mountain waterfall, fallen through insulation from a second story to a first story, been shot (with a bb gun while my college boyfriend was dog-sitting him. I never did get the whole truth on that one), and been attacked and nearly killed by a pit bull. Each time something scary happens to Gatsby, and God delivers him back to me, I am reminded of how undeserving I am of God's grace. Gatsby has always been living proof to me that God loves me- not just that He loves me, but how He loves me. But I had all but forgotten about that in early summer 2010.

Months had gone by since I sat at the lake-side coffee shop. The weather had turned hot, and so had my anger and frustration over the faltering relationships that catalyzed argument after argument in our new marriage. I'd started working part-time at Banana Republic, both to help with the bills and to bring some semblance of structure back into my life. I was still trying to write, trying to sit quietly and let Abba talk to me about my identity. But I was impatient. I felt raw on the inside. More words, more actions had inflicted more pain, and I was lashing out in full-force anger at Andy on a nearly daily basis.

Every time I would get upset over something- either something that was communicated to me or about me- I would, with or without reason, launch into an emotional and verbal crescendo that culminated with me yelling hateful things, filling our two-bedroom apartment with filth from my mouth. Every time that I did this, Andy would suffer through it in silence. He'd usually just sink into the sofa- his head dropping and shoulders slumping, giving into my verbal battering in a way that I never could have. I'm from a family of feisty folks. One of my own flesh and blood would have given it right back to me, but Andy's not a fighter. Not verbally, anyway. He sat quietly while I raged on, folding in on himself, wrapping his arms around his torso, a symbolic shield from my anger. Sometimes his calm fueled my rage even more-I could not understand it, and I interpreted it as a lack of concern or unwillingness to defend our marriage. But Gatsby- Gatsby was not calm. When I would first get started, Gatsby would try, bless his tiny good dog's heart- to get me to stop. He would look at me pleadingly. He'd stretch his paws up on my legs and make the most pitiful face. One time, he sat next to Andy on the sofa, while I paced the living room floor, fussing and fuming. At one point, I looked at Gatsby and Andy, sitting side by side on our salmon-colored sofa. Gatsby's paw was placed on Andy's leg and he gave me a look that said, as clearly as if he'd had words to speak, "Stop. Stop this. He doesn't deserve it." That time, I did stop. I hugged Gatsby and Andy, and that time, like all the rest of the times, I promised to try not to erupt again. But I did erupt again. I was powerless to stop it. The perfect storm of insecurity raged inside me, and I'd not yet responded to the truth completely. And so I raged on.

When I would get angry, Gatsby would always try to communicate with me with his pleading looks, and then he'd begin to shake- his entire body quaking in fear. Eventually, he would find somewhere to hide- in the bathroom, under the bed, behind the sofa. He had never seen me like this before. We had lived together for eight years, and I'd never been like this. Nothing had ever brought it out before. One of the things about marriage is that it brings to the surface things about yourself that you may have never known. I heard a sermon about this phenomenon one time. Andy Stanley talked about how people in marriages often blame one another for causing them to become angry, ugly, abusive, selfish, etc. They say to one another- "I was never like this before we got married. You've made me into someone I'm not!" Sometimes people will even use this as a reason for divorce, believing that if they can just get away from their spouse, then they'll be a better person again. But Andy Stanley said that you're angry, ugly, abusive and selfish because that's sin, and sin is in you. It's in you whether you're married or single, old or young. It's in you until God replaces it with Himself. And that's a continuous, lifelong process. Andy Stanley made an analogy of two very full glasses of water. If the glasses were to bump one another, then what's in the glass inevitably spills out. He said that marriage doesn't change what's in the glass, it just increases the amount of times the glasses are likely to bump into one another. But what comes out when those exchanges occur depends on what's inside you. If you're filled with your sinful, selfish nature, then, when you're bumped, that's what comes out. It comes out because it's in there. It's not your spouse causing some new thing to come out of you. It's you spilling out what's already there, what's always been there, since Adam & Eve and the original sin. Because of this, I knew that what was spilling out of me had always been there- though I have to admit that I was shocked to see it. I knew it wasn't really Andy's fault, or anyone else's, that I was reacting this way. I knew that I'd just gotten jolted so hard by my life's circumstances and the identity crisis that followed that the ugliness of my sin was pouring out with an intensity that had been previously present but never  seen.

It was during this spilling-out period that I came home one day with my arms filled with groceries. I was on the phone with Andy, already angry over something he'd told me, my tone probably mid-crescendo. We lived on the second floor, and when I opened the door, Gatsby dashed out. This wasn't completely uncommon. Sometimes, after I'd been gone a while, he would squeeze past me as soon as I opened the door and trot quickly down the steps to a little patch of grass by the stairwell. I assumed that's what he was going to do, so I stepped inside to place the grocery bags on the counter, still barking at Andy on the phone. After I'd unloaded my arms, I stepped back outside to search for Gatsby. A minute hadn't even gone by. I looked at the patch of grass, but he wasn't there. I looked underneath the stairwell, and along the side of the building, my pace quickening and my heart beating faster. I didn't see him. I stopped complaining to Andy, and my voice changed from anger to urgency. "I can't find Gatsby," I said, bounding back up the steps, thinking that maybe he'd slipped past me and gone back inside the apartment while I wasn't paying attention. I searched the apartment half-heartedly, but thoroughly, knowing deep down that he wasn't in there. I hurried down the stairs again and began to run all over the apartment complex shouting his name, over and over again. Andy was still on the phone with me, and he promised that he was one his way home right then. We hung up and I called my mom, panicked, "Mom, I can't find Gatsby. Please pray." I called my best friend back home, Lacy, and asked her to do the same. Then, I called my mom back. By then, I had started to cry.

Gatsby had never run away before. I'd never not known where he was, and losing him was unimaginable to me. My faithful, loyal friend was always with me, or I at least knew where he was at all times. Sometimes, when we would hike or play off-leash at a park, people would tell me that they wished they could trust their dog to stay with them the way Gatsby stayed with me. I had never once worried about him running off. The thought had never even crossed my mind. He kept his eye on me better than I kept my eye on him. In many ways, Gatsby was more my care-taker than I was his. I'd always just taken it for granted that he would be with me. Even though only minutes had passed since I'd last seen him, I felt a hole rip open inside of me that I'd never felt before. I'd lost my best friend. And it was completely my fault- I had been too harsh, caused him too much stress, and he had run away.

While I waited for Andy to come home and help me look, I paced around our apartment building, crying, praying, and talking to my mom on the phone. In some vague way, I admitted to her that it was my fault that Gatsby had run away. She knew how hurt and angry I'd been the past few months. I hadn't kept it a secret from my parents, though I doubt they, or anyone else for that matter, could imagine the destructive power of my full-throttle anger. My mom was clearly concerned, but was confident that God would not let anything bad happen to Gatsby. She told me that God loved that little dog and He loved me. Her words ripped the hole in my heart open even further, and I felt the weight of my actions in a way that I never had before. She was right, God did love Gatsby, and He had loved me, too. He had loved me when He let me have Gatsby. Of that I was convinced. But lately, I was not sure that God loved me anymore. He seemed so distant. And I was certainly not behaving in a way that anyone could love. It was not the first time I'd acted in such a way.

The summer that I got Gatsby, I had convinced myself that God was an ego-maniac.  He wanted people to worship Him, and wouldn't let them truly live. I thought He was too demanding, too judgmental, too difficult to please. I was never an atheist or an agnostic. I've always been convinced that God is real, I just chose not to like Him.  And the summer before my Sophomore year of college, I made sure that He knew just how much I loathed him- shouting at him one day in my mother's garden, making sure that there was no mistake that I was like my parents, who loved Him and thought that everything He did was so great. I was different. I was making my own choices. I was rejecting Him and felt justified in doing so, and I wanted to make sure that He knew it. It made me feel tough and worldly and real, at the time. Later, I realized that I was not tough, I was critically weak and needed saving. My words that had once seemed so bold and authentic were stupid and vapid, and so was I. But during the time of my greatest defiance, God gave my mother the patience and unconditional love that brought me to a dog kennel, where I picked up a tiny creature that would turn out to be one of my life's greatest blessings. He gave me this gift when I was at my ugliest- when I'd told Him how much I hated Him, how full of Himself I thought He was. I puffed up my pride in His Holy face and spat out my disapproval with arrogance that should have been obliterated right then and there underneath my mother's tulip tree- and He gave me a puppy.

It was thinking about this grace that made me completely break down. Andy had gotten home by then, and we'd searched the apartment complex completely on foot. We were making a second round when I fell down, literally unable to stand in my grief over what I had caused. I didn't deserve Gatsby. I never had deserved him. And now, God had finally done what was just. He'd taken him away.

I couldn't bear it. I sobbed into the dirt, not only because I had lost my friend, but because my ugliness was the reason for it. I imagined him lost, confused, hurting somewhere. Had he been hit by a car? Hd someone stolen him? He was suffering because of me, I was sure of it. This was justice for me. I didn't deserve him. I never had. But it wasn't fair for him to be afraid. And this was my prayer. I asked God for His mercy- knowing full well that I did NOT deserve it. All of my rage, my anger, my nastiness since I'd been married, this was fair punishment for me. This was the pain I rightfully deserved. But I asked God to spare Gatsby any pain. Please, God, don't hurt him because of me. And then God let me realize the bitter truth- that I had been hurting him all along. And I had the audacity to ask God not to hurt him. In truth, I realized that maybe God was taking him from me so that I couldn't hurt him anymore. Then I looked at my husband, who was also crying, while trying to come up with a plan of action for how to better search for Gatsby, and I thought, "Maybe God will take him from me so that I don't hurt him more either." And I sobbed, not with self-pity, but with a deep, mournful sorrow over the greatness of the loss, and the justice of it all.

Andy & I searched for over an hour. We got in the car and drove around, we searched on foot again, we talked to the folks in the apartment complex office and to some neighbors we didn't really know. No one had seen Gatsby. Finally, we went back into the apartment. Andy went to the computer to create a flyer. I got him a picture of Gatsby and he sat down to type up the necessary info before we went to FedEx Office and made a bunch of copies to post around the area. I sat with my back against our apartment door, in more intense emotional pain than I'd ever been in. I thought that my emotional pain was bad when I walked up the stairs that afternoon. Wasn't it catalyzing everything? Bumping my glass and spilling all the anger that was within me? But it was nothing compared with what I felt now. In the months since my wedding, I'd felt so far away from God. I couldn't figure out where He was, why He was letting me go through what I was going through. I knew we had been close once, but in my time of need, He seemed to have evaporated. I wanted Him, but I was having such a hard time finding Him. Then, today, He had shown Himself- not as the Comforter or the Restorer that I had been asking for- but as the Judge. He had sentenced me, and I hadn't even known that I was going to be on trial that day. But the ruling was fair, and I deserved my pain, and it was my own fault for thinking that I could get away with habitual sinning that hurt others. He had to put a stop to it. Any good judge would have.

I heard footsteps, heavy ones, outside the door. Someone was coming up the stairs. Then, a voice- the complex maintenance man, Charles, asking a neighbor where the people with the black and white dogs live. My muscles have never responded so fast. I was on my feet in milliseconds. I could hear it in Charles's voice, even before I swung open the door, and heard his words, "I found your little dog." I can't even remember if he told me where to go. He had barely gotten his first sentence out before I was sprinting down the stairs. When I got to the parking lot, I didn't look to see if cars were coming, or pay any attention to the curious neighbors looking at me. I was a mad woman, running recklessly toward the sound of a familiar bark.

He was in the side yard of the building adjacent to ours- a place we'd searched several times already. Some of the landscape crew had him cornered there, and he was barking at them. He looked confused but otherwise okay. I ran toward him and knelt down, more tears flowing than when I'd lost him. I opened my arms. He ran, and then everything was a blur of tears and black and white fur.

Snapshot 1- I am unconditionally loved. The Bible says this. Its storyline is all about grace. Grace is unmerited favor. It's not what we deserve. It's not based on what we do, how we behave, or what we can achieve. The Bible tells me so, but sometimes, because God is a God of grace, because He loves me with a crazy love that can't be explained except by the fact that He is love- He shows love in a way that our hearts will forever understand. In 2002, He gave a puppy to an arrogant, self-righteous young woman, and today, my heart understands that was an act of his great love for me, even when I was His enemy. And He shows mercy when justice is what's most appropriate. And this might be even greater evidence of God's unconditional love for me than when He gave me Gatsby in the first place. To be given the gift again,  even when I had proved that I thoroughly did not deserve it, was too selfish to care for it as I should. Nothing has ever been more convincing that God's love and His intentional goodness to me is not based on how I perform.

The day that Gatsby disappeared, I had no idea that Abba was telling me a story about His love for me. I didn't realize that He would, one day, point me back to that day so filled with sin, fear, sorrow and regret, and say, "Meredith, here you are and you're crying. You're in a lot of pain because you've lost the gift I gave you. But here in this snapshot, I've restored the gift to you. I restored it, not because you deserved to get it back, but because I love you."

Today, my desk calendar tells me that my dog is the only thing on earth that loves me more than he loves himself. But I know that's not quite true. Gatsby does love me unconditionally. He's still one of the greatest gifts I've ever been given (and re-given). But, the truth is, that the Giver loves me more than Himself, too. So, today, looking at this snapshot of who I am- when my Dad tells me that I am unconditionally loved, I look over at my black and white Cocker Spaniel, who's been sleeping beside me the whole time I've been writing, and I can say, with assurance and thanksgiving, "I know."


Thursday, July 11, 2013

Snapshots of Who I Am- Intro

It rained a lot in Austin the spring of 2010. I didn't realize how abnormal the rains were because it was my first season here. It was an El Nino year. I had taught Earth Science that fall, and we covered a unit on weather, so I had some vague notion of what that meant, but the three years of drought that have followed have certainly given me a greater appreciation for the rains that spring.

I was at a lake-side coffee shop one morning, watching raindrops fall into the water- splashes that spread into tiny waves that crawled away from one another until they met other little waves and were diverted, creating cool, concentric circle patterns that looked like something in a modern art museum. It was a slow, gray rain. The coffee shop was filled with people in scarves and skinny jeans, hugging white porcelain coffee mugs and clicking away on their silver Macbooks. Many were at tables together, huddled around large textbooks whose imposing titles stared at me authoritatively. Microeconomics, A History of Art, Calculus. Students worked purposefully around them, like drones in a bee hive. In a way, I wished for one of those textbooks to command my life, as well. "Memorize this chart. Apply that formula. Learn this lesson from that story." You don't realize it when you have those books- the way that they direct your life, how they squeeze your existence into the simplistic, and yet impossibly difficult,  demands of scholastic achievement.  I had those books once. My dog, Gatsby, hated them. He would sit on them when I'd leave them scattered across my bed in my college apartment. He'd sprawl out on top of their glossy pages and refuse to get off, leaving me with no choice but to spend a few minutes petting him before I pushed him off and went back to studying. You think you hate those books at the time. You can't wait to go down to the college bookstore and sell them back for 30% of the value you bought them for and be rid of them forever. But if you ever get lost like I did- if you're ever searching for your identity in the darkness, you might just miss them and the order that they brought into your life.

There were also some smartly dressed men in the coffee shop. Probably early thirties. Good-looking in a professional, intelligent, and slightly creative sort of way. Very cool. Very Austin. They seemed to be convening for some sort of business. Just the thought of a meeting was enviable at the time, though I'd often dreaded staff meetings and parent-teacher meetings when I was teaching. But a meeting implies that there's something worth discussing- something on the verge of being accomplished. I imagined what kind of business the young men were into- something creative and lucrative, I mused,  something that was going to make a difference in their lives and other people's.

In contrast to the other coffee shop patrons, I sat at a table by myself and looked out the windows at the brownish-gray lake. I didn't have any textbooks on my table- just a beat-up-looking green NIV Bible. And I didn't have anyone important or cool-looking who was going to meet me there. I was very much alone. The rain continued to fall steadily outside, but, inside me, there was a greater storm. One word kept reverberating through my mind, shaking my insides, threatening to tear down everything that was in there- what little was left in tact. The word was appalling.  It had been written in an email directed to Andy but it was about me. The person who wrote it was so fed up with me that they felt the need to let my husband of just a few months know that my behavior was appalling. I won't say who this person was- and won't go into details on why they said this about me. All I can say is that my husband & I had a relationship of sorts with this person and a few others, and that those relationships were crumbling- painfully and quickly.

This past spring, when Andy & I went to the Dominican Republic, he and a team of guys tore down an existing wall to make room for a new paved parking area for the Makarios School staff. A lot of us stopped what we were doing the day they tore down the wall, and watched as the guys on the "Chain Gang" work crew took turns with the sledgehammer. Each full-force swing made a dent in that wall, and in surprisingly quick time- only a matter of minutes- the wall was down. For me, the word in that email was like a sledgehammer- making mighty, forceful blows into my identity, leaving me crushed and broken inside. The process of identity- demolishing had started months ago- I was getting married, I was leaving my family, I quit my job so that I could move to Austin, where Andy had a job as an engineer. I believe those circumstances were big enough to create some sort of dent in my identity on their own. But then the conflict started a few months before our wedding, and there were cutting words and then sledgehammer words, and by that gray morning in the coffee shop, I was almost completely destroyed.

I didn't know who I was anymore. I couldn't find me. I didn't even know who to be looking for. Maybe I really was the appalling person others were convinced that I was. That thought rolled through me like thunder as I sat and watched the rain fall steady as a metronome. The inside of me didn't feel gray and steady like the rain I was watching- it felt swollen and purple and threatening, like the summer afternoon storms of my childhood- the ones that forced us inside while wind splintered the boughs of pine trees,  and lightning streaked the sky. If appalling was the thunder inside of me, then my reaction to it was the lightning. For every ounce of pain that word and other similar judgments had inflicted inside of me, my defensiveness compensated with an equally penetrating measure of meanness that flashed like lightning- blazing through my mind with vengeful thoughts, and occasionally striking my poor, confused and hurting husband with harsh, critical words  My confusion over what was happening howled like a desperate, damaging wind. I was lost inside of that storm, and I didn't know where I was. I didn't know who I was, and I didn't know how to make any of it stop.

That morning, I sat there, with the steady rain outside and the howling storm inside, and I remembered a story I'd heard in church. The story was about a little girl- I think she was about three years old. Her dad was a pastor at our church and he told us that during the time that he and his wife were anticipating the arrival of their second child, the little girl began to kind of act out and do odd things. He didn't go into a lot of detail on that, but he did mention that one of the things that she was doing was bringing her baby photo album into the new baby's nursery. She'd plop down in the middle of that unfamiliar territory, and open the book. Her dad sat down beside her, and began to go through the pages with her. He described, snapshot by snapshot, the events in the little girl's life. "There you are and you're still in Mommy's tummy." "There you are with your Grandma when you're brand new." "Here you are sleeping in your crib when we first brought you home." What amazed me most about this story was that, at each picture, when her dad would tell her the story of who she was in that moment, the little girl would reply, simply, "I know." I know. I know who I am. Even in these circumstances that are changing, I know who I am. When we sit here together, and you tell me my story, I know that it's true. I know who I am because I believe you. I know who I am because you've told me, and I knew that it was true.  I couldn't make sense of very much that rainy spring, but I knew that morning that I wanted to be like that three year old- more than I wanted to be one of the students whose next move was as clear-cut as making it through their next exam, more than I wanted to be like the young professionals in their respectable, trendy attire, even more than I wanted to go back to my life before I came to Austin, before any of the crumbling inside of me began.

I knew that little girl had experienced something that transcends age or personal experience. And her insistence to sit still in the midst of the unknown and wait for her dad to speak words of truth about her identity inspired me. I wanted to do the same. I wanted to sit still with my Father, my heavenly Father, and listen to Him speak to me about who I was. Because the thunder was destroying me, and the lightning was destroying Andy, and I was terrified of it all. As arrogant and awful as I was then, as much as I tried to convince others and myself that I knew the Bible and I knew what I was doing- inside, I was a three year old- a really scared, often petulant child- but one who needed, more than anything else- for her Dad to tell her the truth. I needed his reassurance. I needed Him to tell me who I was. Because I knew that if I listened to someone else- even myself- then I'd hear a lie and I'd just remain lost.

"Who am I?" I wanted to know. I was crying it, practically screaming it at Him- because I didn't know where He was then, either. There wasn't an easy answer. It didn't happen as quickly or as sweetly as the story of the little girl and her dad in the nursery. But it did happen. And I hope it happens for other people, as well. Because I think that there are a lot of people out there with storms inside them, too. People who have been ripped open inside by words and events far more dangerous and damaging than what I went through. Life is scary, and painful and chronically changing. What we do to ourselves and what other people can do to us has no end. We get lost. I still get lost. I am by no means an expert on any of this. I'm not permanently fixed or found. I have no authority whatsoever- a good reason for me to have not written anything more than a blog about this stuff- I don't have credentials. I'm just a person who sat- very lost, very hurt, and very capable of inflicting pain on others- in a coffee shop one day, and asked Dad to tell me- snapshot by snapshot- who I am. The posts that follow will include His answers.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Foreword

In the summer, I love to read. I love books that take me to far away places, and also books that help me learn something. This summer, I first went to ancient Rome, Ephesus, and Jerusalem and wanted to be just like gentle, humble Hadassah in Francine River's "Mark of the Lion" books.  Then, I hiked the Pacific Crest Trail with Cheryl Strayed in Wild. Dan Brown took me on another wild ride that combined literature and art history (his old staples) with my fave- genetics- in Inferno.  I've visited Afghanistan once again with Khaled Hosseini in And the Mountains Echoed. And somewhere mixed into those trips, John Grisham told me a funny little story about how to get out of prison in The Racketeer. When I read, I inevitably want to write, because even though I slack off during the school year, once my mind gets slightly quiet, and I'm not consumed by doing, doing, doing, then I can hear my writer's voice in my head...always writing, always.

It's been this way since I was a child- I think that it began somewhere around the 5th grade, but I didn't really know what it was. I kept up journals in those days, keeping track of mundane events like lots of little girls do, but using too many words and writing with what I am pretty sure was an excess of emotion for a 5th grader. I remember reading the Diary of Anne Frank when I was in the 6th grade and thinking that I had found a kindred spirit. I didn't really understand why at the time. I found her story so captivating, and I immediately became consumed with all things Holocaust related. I told Andy the other day that there was a time when I could have named and located on a map nearly all of the death camps in Europe. I realized later, though, that it wasn't the suffering or the fear or even the captivity that I related to- how could I? My childhood was almost ideal. The greatest suffering that I knew was being left out of building a fort in the woods by my brother and our friend, Brad. As for captivity, I was home-schooled for a couple of years, which might have led to some connection on the plane of feeling kept from the rest of the world, but today, I'm convinced that the main connection was the voice. Anne's voice, her writer's voice- the voice that went into great detail, that analyzed events and then drew conclusions, the voice that forever works to make sense of the madness and the mundane. I knew that I didn't have much of a story, but I knew that I did have a voice.

Throughout high school, the voice would come and go. But I can't say, as some writers can, that I always knew that I was a writer. Probably because I wasn't actually writing- not with any actual effort anyway. There were freak moments when the truth about my writer's voice would come to light. For example, my Senior year, my high school gave away subject awards. The writer's award did not go to me- it went to another girl who helped edit the yearbook, and who had hopes of going off to New York and becoming someone far more cosmopolitan than I aspired to be. I can't say that I blame the teachers for giving her the award, though I have no idea if she was a good writer. I had done absolutely zero to prove myself as a writer. I received the "Sam I Am" award, a sad acknowledgement of my devotion to my high school boyfriend. But I remember that when AP scores came out that summer, I got a five on English literature and composition. The girl who received the award got a four.

In college, I went back to my childhood dream of wanting to become a veterinarian. As I trudged my way through science courses that were more like a foreign language to me than the Spanish that I was pursuing as a minor, I was asked to be a part of an honors program, not because I was naturally gifted at science- I was not. Nor have I ever been. But because I had worked hard and scored the GPA points to be asked. It was in this honors program, though, that I had the opportunity that undergrads dream of- the opportunity to work closely with researchers and professors, to be a part of the "real" science at NC State. And, the opportunity to be noticed, which could lead to recommendations that might help you get into grad school, which was paramount to everyone at the time. In one project, I worked with a group of students researching the sad events involved in the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment. We watched documentary films and discussed bioethics together as a group, but the fruit of that process was meant to be a paper, which I volunteered to write it, mostly because the rest of the group members were good scientists, and I didn't trust their writing. Ha! I remember staying up late into the night, fretting over the words. In the end, the paper was twenty-seven pages long, the most I'd ever written. The professor who advised our group sent it to Tuskegee University, where it was well received, according to my professor. (I'll never really know) Nearly a year later, that professor invited me to join his research team,  an invitation that practically guaranteed me acceptance into a graduate program, a nearly unheard-of opportunity. I declined. He was a professor whose research was in the area of poultry science. I'd written a good paper, and it was the writer, not the scientist, who had caught his attention- I knew that, even if he didn't.  I had no interest in research at that time (though I've grown so much fonder of science and research since then) I've never regretted that decision.

There were stabs at writing here and there as the years went by, but nothing solid. It was like dipping a toe, maybe even an entire foot into the pool, but never actually jumping in. There was an acceptance into a masters program in creative writing at Dallas Theological Seminary, a few columns published by local newspapers, a writing class I took, and this insufferable blog. But writing was never truly an intentional driving force for me, as it is for many other courageous creative types who work sacrificially at menial jobs so that they can practice their craft at night or on their days off. I was never willing to take that plunge, but how can I dismiss the importance that my writing has had in my life? I met Andy when I was at a pub to write an article for a local arts & entertainment journal. One could argue that, if I were not a writer, I'd have never even met him.  I got my current job as a science teacher at Hill Country Christian School, not because of my college GPA, my years of teaching experience or  the relatively high standardized test scores my students received in North Carolina. My headmaster has told me more than once that he read my essay that I submitted as a part of my application, and was convinced that I needed to teach at Hill Country.

An editor once told me that I needed to "write a book before life got in the way." And it was that advice, and my own similar thoughts that led me to start Snapshots of Who I Am in early 2010. The editor had told me that I had a strong writer's voice, and that might be true, but what I've always lacked, what I still lack- is story. I read books like And the Mountains Echoed, and I am in awe of the vivid and intricate story that Hosseini can tell. I have an incredibly limited imagination. I can't write about anything that I don't see happen in front of me. For those things that do happen, I can weave together nouns and verbs- in fact, I have to. It's a compulsion, not a talent. But I cannot come up with anything new. I wish I could because I love fiction, but I most certainly cannot write it. So it stands to reason that Snapshots came about because of something that I was hearing, seeing, experiencing. It was a book about finding your identity, and I felt like I could write it because I had lost mine.

In 2010, I had just gotten married, had moved more than a thousand miles from my home and family, and was experiencing one of the greatest heartaches of my life thus far. I wasn't teaching, wasn't working at all for a while, and was trying to force myself to write something that made sense in the middle of my completely disheveled, painful, nonsensical life. And yet, on some days, I actually thought it might all come together. Hubris, I now think. Or just the desperate hope that it would all knit together into something meaningful, if not beautiful, something that could help other people, because that would at least make the pain of it a little more worthwhile. That never happened the way that I once hoped it would. But I do think that some of the lessons that I learned from the process- from the events themselves, from my reactions, from the words that God spoke to me in the pain- have forever changed who I am, and that's what it was all about anyway.

I remember writing the intro of the book and talking about the search for identity. I wrote about a trip I took to San Francisco when I was a girl. We visited Alcatraz, of course, and I remember the tour guide taking us to the cells where prisoners were kept for solitary confinement. She told us that, to pass the time, prisoners would tear a button off their uniform and toss it into the darkness. Then, they would search for it on all fours, feeling the cold, concrete ground with their fingertips until they finally found what they were looking for. Then, they would toss it again. That's how my life was in 2010. Like my identity had been tossed out into the darkness, and like I was trying desperately to find it.

Snapshots of Who I Am was a book about finding identity. The blog postings that follow will tell, in some shape or form, its story. It's the only story I have. Remember, I can't write fiction.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Freedom in the the absence of doing

It's mid-morning, and I'm sitting on the sofa drinking coffee, still in my PJ's, staring at debris on the floor that my dogs tracked in over the weekend. I'm not going to sweep it up.

There was a Body Pump class at 10AM, and I seriously contemplated going, thinking about how the handful of other Body Pump classes I've gone to over the summer will really mean nothing at all unless I go consistently enough to actually change my body- whatever that even means. I didn't go.

A load of laundry sits in the dryer- towels and rugs from the bathrooms. It's been in there since about 3PM yesterday. I'm not going to fold it. Not right now, anyway.

Our church is doing Backyard Bible Club this week around the city of Austin, and they needed more drivers to get kids to their clubs. It was announced at church on Sunday, and I got an email about it, as well. I didn't sign up.

I'm tired of doing. Not just physically, but mentally, spiritually and all those other words that end in "-ly." It might just sound like I'm being lazy, and that's fine if it sounds that way to you, I'm also tired of worrying about what other people think of me- because that's another form of doing, and a really exhausting one at that. I'd like to offer that it's a lot more that that, though, that I'm not doing because I'm choosing not to. Not because I'm unwilling, lazy, lethargic or lacking in desire. It's because I'm weary of doing, and weary of all of the mess that comes along with it.

There's a time for doing- doesn't Solomon say something about that in Ecclesiastes?- but for me, now is not the time. I've been consumed by doing for years- and years and years. Now, I'm really tired. No, not tired. Weary. There's a difference. I'm experiencing that difference right now. I don't know how to put it into words, but if you've been there, you probably know what I'm talking about anyway.

I'm not saying that this weariness is a bad thing. In fact, in a way, I'm really excited about it. Again, it's hard to articulate, but I'll try to give you some examples.

Last week, Andy & I were at a party where a gal was wearing a t-shirt that said, "Run, Wendy, run." Wendy being the outspoken Democratic leader who has made national headlines for her die-hard support for women's rights in the abortion debate that has had pro-choice and pro-life Texans in a political fight that reminds me of two male deer with locked antlers. I felt no desire to judge her for her t-shirt or her lifestyle that's "alternative" to mine. Nor did I want to storm the steps of the Capitol alongside her with my own "Wendy" t-shirt. But I was happy to see her at our soccer game on Sunday. We chatted, laughed, and played well together.

Over the weekend, I spent time with a young friend who talked to me about some things going on in her life right now- questions she has, new experiences she's having. I took it in, listening, occasionally commenting. But as we walked together and she talked about her own unique life experiences, I realized, with great relief, that I didn't have any answers for her.

In another situation, Andy & I had a couple over and met their new baby boy. I asked questions of the new mom and dad, and never once did a thought pass through my mind about how I could or would try to do something differently or better than they were doing with their child. I just took it in- their little family- complete in its own uniqueness, living its own little story.

Finally, I learned this weekend about some marriages that are having a hard time. And never once did my mind think- well, if they just read Tim Keller's "The Meaning of Marriage" (though that is a really good book), then all will be well. I knew not to assume that I have any say-so whatsoever into the depths of someone else's marriage. Those waters, deep and private, are not for me to chart, or for me to assume that any other person's map would lead to a way-out. There's a song of the Christian radio right now about broken marriages. I turn it off every time I hear it. It says that if you just turn it over to the Lord, He will restore. For some people that might be true. He is the Restorer. But how He restores, when where and with whom is His own business. I know people who have turned their marriages over to the Lord, and they are divorced. It's just not simple. I don't have an answer. I don't have a song lyric or a book to offer. I just prayed.

This is the freedom of not doing. The relief that comes with meeting each person at the place they are in their journey, not with advice, not with the desire to compete with them or to prove to myself that I can out-do them, or to make sure that they know all of the areas in which they are wrong. I'm weary of that- weary of my own arrogance, my own self-obsession that is so compelled to prove- to whom?- that I am right or better or whatever. I'm not. The relief that comes with the absence of doing is tremendous. It's everything- it's Good News. It's what people in churches have, for a long time, called "The Gospel."

In this freedom, I've also met again with a desire I had a few years ago to write a book. It was a book about identity, and that idea, that theme of identity and the desire to write about it swells within me when I am not completely consumed by my actions. An now, the desire carries with it greater fear- the good kind of fear, I think, the kind that keeps you from getting too big for your britches- than it did three years ago, when I thought that I would be able to just sit down and make it happen. God has a way of putting britches on you that fit your insides, that make your ego shrink down to a size that He can stand to be around. I love him for that. I'm not going to write a book. I don't have time for that, and I don't have the desire to prove myself by seeing my name on a book cover anymore, or the anxiety that went along with that desire. But the message of it was something that I wanted to explore, and something that I needed to put down- so that I could know it in my heart and not just my head, because those places, though they mysteriously somehow inhabit this 5 foot 4 inch piece of real estate that God decided to give to me, seem to be so incredibly far away from one another. Anyway, I thought, that, since I've got some freedom, and I'm in no particular hurry right now to do my laundry or sweep my floor or plan for another year of school (though that time will eventually come) that I might write again- about those verbal snapshots that I tried to take three years ago when my heart was broken and my head was swollen and I didn't know where God was. Things are different now. I don't know all the answers, but I thought I'd take up the journey again, and write a bit as a I go along... until August,  when the doing will probably start once more.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Myrtle Beach

This past weekend, I got to go the Myrtle Beach with my mom. I haven't been down there in four years, but things were much the same- which is a good thing. :) It rained a good bit while we were there, but we enjoyed ourselves regardless of the weather. We went shopping when it rained, I enjoyed running and walking on the beach, and we both enjoyed some great seafood. It was a great trip- wonderful to hear the sound of the waves again and feel the sun and the wind. Here are a few pics that I took from an early morning walk. Neither mom or I are big on taking pics in our swimsuits, so this is all I've got. ;) 

Not a great angle, but I had to get a shot of the moonlight on the water while I was  at the beach. It was absolutely gorgeous. 
The next morning, I got up early and went for a walk. 


It rained a lot while we were there. This giant "puddle" was in front of one of the high-rise hotels. 





Someone from Texas already beat me to the Apache pier this year. 



I thought I would just take a few snapshots of folks doing what they enjoy on a beautiful Sunday morning at Myrtle Beach. Fishing. 

Searching for buried treasure. 
Dog Walking. 
Running.





Sunday, June 16, 2013

Where the Wermels live...

Our beautiful Oaks in the front yard

Still work to do, but the yard looks so much better after just two weeks!

The natural skylight is perfect for my air plants that live in this birdhouse we found at City-Wide Garage Sale

Hallway bathroom- came out kind of blurry

Daisy in our bedroom

Daisy relaxing on her bed :)

Not much furniture in the dining room, but that's okay 

Finally a place to hang this print I got years ago in Paris.

Guest bedroom...mom was a good sport to sleep on the mattresses. Black wrought-iron bed should be delivered soon.

Doggies in the hallway 

Kitchen

Kitchen Table

Living Room 




Peonies say summer! 

Study/"Man Cave"



Home is wherever Andy is. :)